While Wonder Woman has justifiably received praise and critical acclaim for its stellar performance at the Box Office and narrative achievement for a DCEU film, it’s not the only superhero movie that’s been released this summer. In fact, it’s not even the best: that honor goes to the one and only Captain Underpants. 20 years after the publication of the first novel in the Captain Underpants series and nearly six years after DreamWorks announced its intention to adapt the books, the waistband warrior exploded onto the big screen. And it was glorious. Not merely a supremely enjoyable film, but one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
For those who may not be familiar with the good Captain, he can only be described as a publishing phenomenon. Since the first book was published in 1997, the series has grown to 12 novels and three spinoffs, with combined sales of over 70 million copies worldwide. Written and drawn by Dav Pilkey, the books follow the adventures of two best friends named George Beard and Harold Hutchins. Irrepressible pranksters and founders of their own comic book company, they accidentally transform their evil principal, Mr Krupp, into their greatest creation: the scantily-clad vision of justice known as Captain Underpants.
As the above synopsis suggests, the books are very much tongue-in-cheek, each adventure hurtling along in a tidal wave of zany ideas, improbable plot twists and manic energy. Anything can — and does — happen in this series, with Pilkey taking every opportunity to have fun with conventions of the superhero genre. Where DreamWorks went right is that they didn’t choose to do a loose adaptation of the books or pick and choose what elements might be more palatable to a wider audience, as so many superhero adaptations do. Instead, the movie is remarkably faithful to the books and all the better for it.
This approach affects the tone of the movie, retaining the spirit and flavor of the books. While many animated films, including those of Pixar, are lauded for their ability to be enjoyed by adults and children on different levels, Captain Underpants has no time for such pretentiousness. It knows that some things — such as a well-delivered joke about bodily functions — are universal, and makes no apologies for finding humor in these circumstances. This evolves into a central theme in the film: the importance of allowing ourselves to be childlike and find humor in the most difficult situations.
As the first film in the series, the movie is tasked with delivering lots of background material and origins for the characters, which it does in a variety of clever ways. Captain Underpants’ origin is delivered in the form of comic strip panels, with George and Harold discussing what features should be included (the main bone of contention being Harold’s belief that the infant Underpants was raised by kindly farmer dolphins). Similarly, Professor Poopypants flashes back to his darkest day, while the spartan nature of Mr Krupp’s house renders any formal flashback unnecessary, trusting the viewer to make their own inference.
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